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National

Sudden Coronavirus Spike Overwhelms India's Health Care System

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right. Let's turn to India now, the country where the virus is now spreading faster than anywhere else. There aren't enough hospital beds, oxygen or vaccines. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Sagar Kishore Naharshetivar has been driving his van around southern India with his sick father lying in the back, hooked up to an oxygen tank. His father's got COVID-19 and needs treatment, but all the hospitals are full.

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SAGAR KISHORE NAHARSHETIVAR: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: Sagar told local TV he's checked hospitals in three different towns, even crossing state lines from Maharashtra to Telangana. But there's no room anywhere. He's desperate, watching his father deteriorate.

Scenes like this are playing out in hospital parking lots across India.

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FRAYER: In Gujarat in western India, a man weeps after his relative died outside a hospital waiting to get in. And arguments erupt over who is to blame.

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PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "This wave hit us like a storm," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an address to the nation last night. It's a storm that no one was prepared for.

Just two months ago, COVID-19 had all but disappeared here. Now social media is full of desperate pleas for oxygen tanks, antiviral drugs, even COVID tests. One veteran journalist, unable to find care, live-tweeted his own oxygen levels until he died. Crematoriums are running 24/7 here.

BHRAMAR MUKHERJEE: Deaths have been increasing by a factor of 10 in the last one month, and cases have skyrocketed seven times since.

FRAYER: Bhramar Mukherjee is a statistical modeler at the University of Michigan. She says the spike is partly because when cases fell earlier this year, some people stopped social distancing, weren't as diligent about wearing their masks. But it may also have to do with new coronavirus variants, she says.

MUKHERJEE: Many multiple unknown variants emerging in the Indian landscape and really are very concerned because we need more data. Where are they emerging, and how rapidly are they replacing the original strain?

FRAYER: Another big question on many Indians' minds is, how effective existing vaccines are on these new variants? There are reports of fully vaccinated people getting ill here, though it's unclear how seriously.

All of that is fueling fear, but it's not yet backed by science, says Christina Pagel. She's a mathematician at University College London who's been tracking coronavirus variants.

CHRISTINA PAGEL: India does have sequencing capability, and it has started, but only really less than 1% of all the samples that they get, the positive samples that they get.

FRAYER: So it's difficult to draw conclusions. Scientists have identified what they're calling a double mutant, a variant with two mutations. They're still trying to figure out its behavior and how prevalent it is here. One theory is that it's more infectious, another that it's more evasive to vaccines. The worst-case scenario, Pagel says, is that it's both.

PAGEL: Even if this strain is the worst case - and it would be really, really bad news for India - if other countries put in place now the kind of border measures that we've seen work, we could potentially stop it going global.

FRAYER: And so the CDC is now telling Americans not to travel to India, even if they have been fully vaccinated. The U.K. is also restricting travel, all while scientists scramble to sequence India's variants and figure out what's happening here.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLDTWIGS' "DUNES (FEAT. LIME KAIN)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.